Sunday, March 12, 2006

Do Anarchists Learn or Just Rant?

PJ Lilley & Jeff Shantz republish a paper “The World’s Largest Workplace: social reproduction and wages for housework” in: http://nefac.net/node/1924, an online journal of NEFAC (North Eastern Federation of Anarchist Communists):

But how did we get into an economic system of evaluation that refuses to account for, and truly recognize the real value of women's unpaid work? Basically, the system of accounting for value was defined by bourgeois men who wished to evaluate the growth of wealth in the nation state. Economists like Adam Smith started out by separating moral, aesthetic and use "value" from "market" value. As Marilyn Waring points out in her detailed book of feminist economics, If Women Counted, "If Adam Smith was fed daily by Mrs. Smith, he omitted to notice or to mention it. He did not, of course, pay her. What her interest was in feeding him, we can only guess, for Adam Smith saw no 'value' in what she did." From the banks to the United Nations, economists ever since have evaded admitting their own self-interest, and continued to judge the market as the source of value.”

Comment:
The first sentence says it all: “But how did we get into an economic system of evaluation that refuses to account for, and truly recognize the real value of women's unpaid work?”

Excuse me. The question implies we ‘got into’ something, presumably from ‘something else’ that did “truly recognize the real value of women's unpaid work?”, but which the system ‘we got into’ doesn’t. The real question should be: ‘By what form of thought processes did the authors get into a system of thinking that doesn’t understand that no economic system experienced in human society has ever paid directly for the private household work of families - although the capitalist system experienced in North America is without doubt the richest in per capita income throughout the entire history of the world of the human race?
How society distributes its annual product, what Adam Smith called its ‘wealth’, is a matter for the democratic wishes of the population. I shall not go farther into this debate on this occasion.

On the third sentence: “Economists like Adam Smith started out by separating moral, aesthetic and use "value" from "market" value”, I think the authors jumble up what was a long-standing debate in 18th century political economy and not something that Adam Smith ‘started’. I am not sure what they mean by the ‘moral value’. One person’s ‘high’ moral value may have ‘low’ or no value whatsoever for another person. This is inescapable: value is not an absolute; it is always relative something.

For example, one person may place the highest possible ‘moral’ value on, say, a religious building, or site, or icon, to the extent of being willing to kill others, burn buildings, destroy artifacts and burn books. Those others who are killed, and their families and friends, and co-believers, may despise the religious beliefs of the upholders of their religious beliefs. Can moral values be both ‘high’ and low’ in value at the same time? If so, what is their rate of measure? How do we know how much to regard them, or when is it appropriate to kill for them?

Similarly with ‘aesthetic’ value and ‘use’ value. That was the conundrum addressed by 18th-century moral philosophers, including Smith (e.g., the paradox of the use value of water and diamonds, and their exchange value). Value is subjective: I place a high value on football, my wife doesn’t share my use value at all; she prefers to watch rugby.

One test of the use value is the sacrifice that one is willing to make to enjoy the use values which one values. As long as the issue of ‘sacrifice’ is low scale and harmless, there is no problem, such as swapping role for how many days shopping, cooking, cleaning and babysitting would one do to watch a football/rugby match on a household’s single tv? This is a move towards using an exchange value to measure the real use value of the activity felt by the participants. Of course, it becomes dangerous and unacceptable as a measure of sacrifice when the sacrifice is whether one is prepared to kill for one’s enjoyment.

However, exchange value is one test that is harmless, though not without its defects. We can price sacrifice in the amount one is prepared to give up to enjoy a use value. We can choose not to watch football on tv – and not to watch tv – by not buying a tv set, or of spending extra out of the household budget to travel to the match and enjoy it directly; meanwhile the rugby is on the tv (or vice versa). It was this idea that Adam Smith and others developed. It was about exchange value, what something is worth to the consumer of the utility value against all the other things that the person could spend out of a budget to enjoy the use value of other scarce resources.

Lastly, the penultimate sentence: “As Marilyn Waring points out in her detailed book of feminist economics, If Women Counted, "If Adam Smith was fed daily by Mrs. Smith, he omitted to notice or to mention it. He did not, of course, pay her. What her interest was in feeding him, we can only guess, for Adam Smith saw no 'value' in what she did."

Oh, dear! Adam Smith never married. The only ‘Mrs Smith’ he lived with was his mother. If Marilyn Waring did not know this elementary fact then her nonsense about Smith ‘omitting or not mentioning’ his mother in his books is, well, just plain nonsense. His surviving letter to his publisher, who enquired about when he may expect the return on proof sheets, is striking evidence of his admiration, love and gratitude for ‘Mrs Smith’:

I should immediately have acknowledged the receipt of the fair sheets; but I had just then come from performing the last duty to my poor old Mother; and tho’ the death of a person in the ninetieth year of her age was no doubt an event most agreeable to the course of nature; and, therefore, to be foreseen and prepared for; yet I must say to you, what I have said to other people, that the final separation from a person who certainly loved me more than any person ever did or ever will love me; and whom I certainly loved and respected more than I ever shall either love or respect any other person, I cannot help feeling, even at this hour, as a very heavy stoke upon me.’ (Correspondence of Adam Smith, letter no 237. To William Strahan, 10 June 1784: p 274; Smith’s mother, Margaret Douglas, died on 23 May 1784).

I suggest, politely, that Marilyn Waring should refrain from writing about any person’s personal life when she knows nothing about that person at all. Nor do the authors of the piece, PJ Lilley & Jeff Shantz, come out of this with their reputations for honest discourse intact. I had occasion in October’s Lost Legacy: “Misunderstanding Smith's Domestic Life to write a correction about this very same subject and sent it to them in the hope they would drop the quotation from Marilyn Waring. Clearly, they have not done so in republishing their 2005 paper in March 2006, from which readers may draw their own conclusions.

By slipping in the word 'markets' for 'exchange value', Lilley and Shantz switch attention off from their original point: use value to exchange value, and make use value into 'market' value. Now Smith is very clear in his opinions of morality being part of market conduct, whereas 'use and exchange' value are instruments of measurement of something, and providing the measures are accurate and honest, they have no connection with morality, anymore than metres or inches are 'moral' or 'aesthetic'. Markets in Smith's perception could operate to a high standard - Natural Liberty, Justice and Security -and in their natural state, he opined, they would. Market prices could vary up or down from natural prices, by processes we now call supply and demand. They could also vary due to monopolies, regulations, cheating, government controls, and such like. The distortions raised moral issues; the natural conditions did not, because morality was conceived as part of the natural market prices. Please read 'Theory of Moral Sentiments' as well as 'Wealth of Nations'.

0 Comments:

Post a comment

<< Home